How I fell in love with Hammer Horror



I loved horror films long before I saw any. 
At primary school I would spend hours looking at a friend's copy of Alan Frank's book Horror Movies, imagining what it would be like to actually see one, to see those gorgeous colour and black and white stills actually move. (Even today I am instantly struck when a moment in a film corresponds with one of those stills - Peter Cushing sawing a skull open in Frankenstein Must be Destroyed, for instance, or Christopher Matthews with a spike sticking out of him in Scars of Dracula - it feels odd, like a trick, or when film-makers stage a scene to look like a classical painting.)
Perhaps more than any other body of films, my love of Hammer Horror is inseparable from my childhood memories of it. All horror films seemed like hidden treasure to me then, and without doubt the first of the three great milestones in my film-lover's boyhood was when I at last caught up with the Universal sequence, thanks to a series of Saturday night BBC 2 double bills in the Summer of 1983. (The second was my discovery of the Marx Brothers that Christmas.) But though I loved the Universals, I still dreamed of Hammer. After all, they were in colour, there was blood, Dracula had pointy fangs and the women all wore nightgowns.

Watching Hammer films today, I seem to be more aware of the limitations to their style and methods than the strengths, and I find I prefer the earlier Hollywood versions more and more. But when I finally got to see them they were everything I was hoping for. In fact, I'll happily watch any Hammer film, and I've never seen one I didn't enjoy. (And yes, that does include The Vengeance of She.)
So Hammer was milestone three, thanks to yet another BBC 2 season, Christmas 1984, consisting of Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula double-billed, then The Mummy (which nearly makes it to my favourites list), Curse of the Werewolf (which seems to me by far the least of the batch, though this may have something to do with the fact that I missed it at the time and only saw it years later) and Blood From the Mummy's Tomb.

The latter was the odd one out. Shown first, but made over a decade after the originals from which the rest of the season was drawn, it's unromantically photographed on sound stages and real streets, lacking the artificiality and elegance and uniformity of the films made at the tiny, ramshackle Bray Studios (which Hammer stopped using in 1967).
Whether its presence in my list of favourites, like Werewolf's absence, is therefore attributable to the accident of its having been shown at this time in this company is a moot point, but I don't think so: it's head and shoulders above most of Hammer's seventies output. Odd, because it was completed under the most arduous of circumstances: original star Peter Cushing dropped out after a day's work to tend his ailing wife, and original director Seth Holt dropped dead halfway through.
Gorgeous, huge-eyed Valerie Leon comes definitely from their looks-first school of casting, but in fact gives a very effective and spooky little performance in the lead - it was back to the Carry Ons afterwards, however.
An adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel Jewel of the Seven Stars, it denies audiences the mummy seemingly promised by the title and instead offers a complex plot about reincarnation that, stopping only for a few gratuitous gory deaths, moves elegantly and with a persuasively sinister atmosphere to a neatly ironic ending.
Perhaps because his greatest successes had all been in monochrome, Holt does not make the error of bathing the Egyptian flashbacks in studio sunlight, which makes the sets look obvious and drowns everything in sickly yellow. Instead he goes for the simple but so much more effective gambit of setting them all at night: the sets look great, picked out in candlelight and shadow, and the strange, other-worldly aura thus achieved is so effective it makes you wonder why it isn't always night in ancient Egypt in horror films.

As for Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula: well, I dread to think how many times I watched my Betamax copy of them throughout 1985. They still seem to me perfect examples of low-budget horror, the underrated first as much as the rightly lauded second, and fascinating in the confidence with which they took the genre away from the gothic excess of the American model and reinserted it into a Gainsborough/Tod Slaughter milieu (that swiftly became the new orthodox among the plethora of imitators appearing in their wake).
Everything about them works, and the central performances of Peter Cushing (as Frankenstein and Van Helsing) and Christopher Lee (as the Creature and Dracula) set a new standard. They are both less than 85 minutes, and while many of the later Hammers are uncertainly paced, these rattle along like steam trains.
Director Terence Fisher, who had come to the studio after a long apprenticeship at Gainsborough and elsewhere but whose work would come to define the Hammer style, does an amazing job with a tiny budget, cramped sets, short shooting schedule and the studio's generally low aspirations for and expectations of the projects. Later, when the first receipts were in, and Hammer and Fisher realised they had stumbled onto something incredibly potent, self-consciousness set in, and the effortlessness and ease characterising this first pair seemed often to elude them both.
Both films take the old myths and make them smaller. This Frankenstein works from the attic room of an English country house (supposedly in a mountain village in Switzerland) as far removed from Colin Clive's wet-walled fortress as Lee's raw and mangled Creature is from Karloff's electric green giant. The Baron is now a Tod Slaughteresque wicked squire, disposing of his inconveniently pregnant serving wench like Squire Corder polishing off poor Maria Marten in the Red Barn.
And then, Lee's Dracula is deadpan and underplayed, replacing Lugosi's "I am... Dracula!" with a stiffly British "Mr Harker, I am glad that you have arrived safely." (For all his attempts to escape the character's shadow - and yes, he does have one here - Lee has never since filled the screen with such sheer presence, acting with height and bearing and poise, and with the elegant, expressive hands that glide, white and sinister, at the end of his black, mile-long arms.)
This time the Count and his victims are only a border-crossing apart, and Cushing's Van Helsing dismisses transformation into bats as "a common fallacy". These prosaic touches are the work of screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, and would largely disappear when his place as chief writer was taken by John Elder.

Not part of the season, however - though I wish it had been - was the film that seems to me Hammer's finest of all: The Phantom of the Opera.
It is far and away Terence Fisher's best job of work as a director, with a larger than usual budget extremely well-spent, superb editing, music and screenplay, and a wonderfully detailed Victorian atmosphere. It was also a flop, ended Fisher's dominance of the studio's product, and has been criminally underrated ever since.
Basically a romantic tragedy, with the Phantom a noble outcast punished for his naivety in a world of philistines and crooks, it is an affecting and sad film; the scene in which tears stream from the Phantom's eyes when he hears his protégée singing on stage for the first time, is genuinely moving. But it's also supremely eerie, it boasts a lovely fake opera by Edwin Astley, and scene after scene displays careful, considered, masterly film-making. (One particular stand-out being the sequence in which the heroine is abducted and taken to the Phantom's lair, in which direction, editing and music collaborate brilliantly to deliver one hell of a shock when she opens her curtains.)
.I started thinking about Hammer because, even as murmurs are heard yet again of plans to revive the brand (such plans are aired, sometimes with considerable detail and fanfare, every five years or so) another link in the chain dissolved this week. Producer Aida Young has died at the age of 86.
Young is best known as the producer who took charge of the studio’s production in its final burst of activity, between its winning the Queen’s Award For Industry in 1968 and collapse a half-decade later. The obituaries have been generous: interesting to see the Draculas described without qualification in The Times as “horror classics”, which would have been much less likely even ten years ago. (The same paper's claim that she had to “overcome the waves of sexual discrimination within the film industry” in order to scale the dizzy heights of what was always the smallest and friendliest family firm in the business is surely as unreflective as it sounds, however.)
In interviews, the real old guard of the studio would occasionally be less than generous in their assessments of her; all were in agreement that she was not overly concerned with the quality of the movies themselves. Nonetheless, I’m a big fan of some of them, especially Dracula Has Risen from the Grave.
Taste the Blood of Dracula may be a more serious achievement, and Dracula AD 1972 a more joyous entertainment, but this late-sixties penny dreadful remains my favourite Dracula sequel. You'll probably have guessed that it was the second I saw, some time in '85 I think (though somewhere around this time I also saw The Satanic Rites of Dracula at a friend's house; the exact chronology eludes me now.)
I loved the vivid opening credits, I loved the exuberantly gory (if irrelevant and meaningless) first scene, which plays somewhat in the manner of a James Bond pre-credits sequence, and most of all I loved the ending, the most inventively gruesome in the entire series, with Dracula tumbling down a cliff and ending up kebabbed on the shaft of a huge golden crucifix, weeping tears of blood.
Now when I watch it I am also struck by the beauty of the photography and the sets, the little winding streets and rooftops, uniquely stylish and charming among the post-Bray studio films, and also by all the theological huffing and puffing in the screenplay. (It seems inarguable to me now that this subtext, betrayed overtly by the cribbing of a couple of visual ideas and the key scene in which church patriarch Rupert Davies grills his atheistic prospective son-in-law, was lifted from Fred Zinnemann's film of A Man For All Seasons.)

Hands of the Ripper, a later Young production, is also among the finest of the studio's later output, though it more obviously betrays its era in its flat lighting and obvious sound stages. Other than that, however, it is terrific stuff, gory and spooky, but also oddly romantic and touching, and benefitting enormously - at a time when Hammer tended to look to Playboy for its female leads - from the casting of Angharad Rees, a china doll rather than an inflatable one. It is the most poignant Hammer Horror since Phantom of the Opera; the finale, as the Ripper's tormented daughter leaps from the whispering gallery of St Paul's into the arms of the protector she had earlier tried to murder, is exceptional.
.Aida Young (1920 -2007)